Michel Poncet de La Rivière

Michel Poncet de la Rivière,
the Bishop of Angers,
in an engraving by Jean-François Cars

Michel Poncet de la Rivière (11 July 1671 in Strasbourg,[1] France – 2 August 1730 in Château d’Éventard, near Angers, France) was a French clergyman, preacher and, from 1706 to 1730, the 79th bishop of Angers. He was the son of Vincent-Matthias Ponchet de la Riviere,[2] the Lord Lieutenant of Alsace, and his wife, Marie Betauld; the nephew of Michel Poncet de la Rivière, the 61st Bishop of Uzès (1677–1728);[3] the uncle of Mathias Poncet de la Rivière, the 90th Bishop of Troyes (1742–1758);[4] and the cousin of Joseph Poncet de la Rivière, the Jesuit missionary of Canada.

Early life

Michel de la Rivière studied theology at the University of Bourges,[5] where he graduated with a doctorate in 1695.[6] His uncle rewarded him with the appointments as the dean of Navacelles near Uzès and the Vicar General of Uzès[6] in the Cévennes, where young Michel had to deal with the revolt of the Camisards, for which he drew up a proposal for their expulsion. In 1689, he also became the abbé commendataire [ honorary abbot ] of the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Pierre in Vierzon and managed to add the post of canon, through régale, in Sarlat.[6] He was ordained as a priest in the next year.[6][7]

On 7 June 1706, Michel de la Rivière was appointed as the 79th Bishop of Angers.[7] Two months later, on 1 August, he was consecrated[7] in Paris at the Église des Grandes-Jésuits [ Great Church of the Jesuits ] by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal de Noailles.[8]

The Bishop of Angers

As the Bishop of Angers, La Rivière was firm and orthodox.[6] He assigned his Vicar General, François Babin, to write the essay, Conferences d’Angers, published in 1716; promoted the Papal bull, Unigenitus, against Jansenism; condemned Les Hexples, ou les six colomnes sur la Constitution Unigenitus, the 1721 collection of six Jansenist essays; denied the appeal from the Benedictines of the five Angevin abbeys; defeated two bishops in a debate at the Assembly of the Clergy in 1725.[9] But he also found the time to dedicate in 1710 l'Église du Bon-Pasteur [ Church of the Good Shepherd ], built on rue Saint-Nicolas [ St. Nicholas Street ] in Angers, for the Soeurs du Bon Pasteur [ not to be confused with the modern Good Shepherd Sisters ], a local community of non-cloistered nuns; and to build, at his own expense, the Chapel of the Calvary, set against the Cathedral, as the shrine of the mission cross.[10] He was also on a shortlist of three clergymen for the post of the preceptor of King Louis XV in 1714 [6] but he did not get the post.

In his youth, before he became famous as an orator, Michel devoted himself to poetry with some success.[11] As an orator, he was considered to be one of the best, along with Jean Baptiste Massillon and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. He earned great praise for two speeches he made at the Court – one of them in 1715 during Lent and the other in 1722 for the coronation of King Louis XV – but Saint-Simon felt that La Rivière's skills as an orator were not the equal of these important occasions.[6][12] A year later, in 1723, his fortunes came to a sudden end. Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the Regent of France, had just died. His death caused the clergy considerable distress because, in spite his notoriously dissolute lifestyle,[13] his funeral oration would have to be delivered to the pleasure and satisfaction of the King and his Court.[14] La Rivière was chosen for this job. But, during the funeral, when he came to the matter of the salvation of the Duke’s soul, the Bishop blurted, “Je crains; mais j'espere [ I fear but I hope ]”.[15][16][17] These words were enough to banish him from the Court. However, his oration remains as one of the best funeral sermons ever written in the French language. In fact, d'Alembert declared, “Quand l'évêque d'Angers n'eût écrit que ce peu de mots en toute sa vie, il ne devrait pas être placé dans la classe des orateurs ordinaires [ If the Bishop of Angers had not written these few words, he would be counted only among the ordinary orators ].”[15] It is notable for the following passage:

(French)Du pied du plus beau trône du monde il tombe ... dans l'éternité. Mais pourquoi, mon Dieu, après en avoir fait un prodige de talents, n'en feriez-vous pas un prodige de miséricorde?[15]
(English) “From the foot of the most beautiful throne of the world he falls ... in eternity. But why, my God, after having made a miracle of talent, have You not done a miracle of mercy?”

Last years

In his retirement, La Rivière was rewarded with the esteem of the men of letters when he was elected as a member of the Académie française in 1728. He was received at the Academy on 10 January 1729 but he was not able to enjoy such an honor for a long time. On 2 August 1730, he died[7] at the Château d’Éventard,[18][19] in Écouflant, 3 miles (5 km) north of Angers.

La Rivière left only a few speeches, sermons, harangues and parish letters, and a funeral sermon, Oraison funèbre de très-haut, très-puissant et très-excellent prince Mgr Louis, Dauphin, prononcée dans l'église de l'abbaye royale de Saint-Denys, le dix-huitième juin 1711 [ French, Funeral Oration of Most High, Most Perfect and Most Excellent Prince, Msgr. Louis, the Dauphin, delivered at the Church of Saint-Denis, on the Eighteenth of June 1711 ].[16][20]

Another book, which seems to have been written by the Bishop, or at least by his secretary, appeared in 1721. The literal translation of its Latin title is:

Series of Lessions, of the Breviary of Angers, of the Most Reverend and Illustrious Father in Jesus Christ Don Michel Poncet de la Rivière, Bishop of Angers, Recognized by the Authority and Approval of the Venerable Chapter, Château-Gontier, House of Joseph Gentil, Printer and Bookseller of the Town and College, 1721, by the Privilege of the King.[21]



  1. Some sources list Paris as the Bishop's birthplace. But July was traditionally not the month to stay in the city. Besides, his father, Vincent-Mathias, had already been in Alsace as the Lord Lieutenant of Strasbourg for a year. He held the office between 1670 and 1673.
  2. French magistrate who died in 1693. Son of Pierre Poncet de la Rivière (1590–1681), who died as the dean of the Councilors of the State, Vincent-Matthias was the Comte [Count] d’Ablis and Seigneur [Lord] de la Rivière in the province of Boulogne. He was the First Councilor of the Parliament, then the maître des requêtes [ “Master of Requests”, a judicial office in the Council of State ] (1665), a high judicial office , and later the intendant [ Lord Lieutenant ] of Alsace (1671) , Metz (1673) and Bourges (1676) and, in 1676, the President of the Grand Council of the State. He is traditionally attributed as the author of Considérations sur la régale et autres droits de souveraineté à l'ègard des coadjuteurs [ French, Considerations of the regalia and other rights of sovereignty regarding the coadjutors ] (1654).
  3. Michel Poncet de la Rivière (1638–1728), the brother of Vincent–Matthias, was appointed in 1677 as the Bishop of Uzès at the request of the 4th Duke of Uzès but he had to renounce the title of Bishop-Count, which had been held by his predecessors.
  4. Mathias Poncet de la Rivière (1707–1780) began as a canon in 1721 under his uncle at the Cathedral of Angers. He later became the personal chaplain of the Duke of Lorraine, Stanisław Leszczyński, the King of Poland, and, in 1750, one of the founding members of the Académie de Stanislas.
  5. Michel and his father were not the only members of their family to be in Bourges. When Vincent-Matthias was the Lord Lieutenant of Bourges in 1675, the Bishop of Bourges was his first cousin, the son of Pierre, Michel Poncet de la Rivière (1609–1677)! See (English) Joseph Bergin, Crown, Church, and Episcopate Under Louis XIV, page 465 for more details.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (English) Joseph Bergin, Crown, Church, and Episcopate Under Louis XIV, page 466.
  7. 1 2 3 4 (English)Bishop Michel Poncet de la Rivière †, Deceased, Bishop of Angers”, Catholic Hierarchy, retrieved 18 December 2013.
  8. (French) Candel, Les prédicateurs français, page 354.
  9. (French) Jean, Les évêques et les archévêques de France, page 427.
  10. (French) Bodin, Recherches historiques sur l' Anjou, page 436
  11. Very few of his compositions have survived from his youth but d'Alembert cited in his elegy one of them as an elegant example of a sestina, written in response to a bouquet of flowers sent by a relative who remembered his name day because of a beggar asking for alms in the name of St. Michael, celebrated on that day (29 September):
    Un aveugle, en passant, vous remet en mémoire
    Qu'aujourd'hui de mon saint on célèbre la gloire
    En me fait recevoir les présents les plus doux.
    Que mon bonheur serait extrême,
    Si cet aveugle était le même
    Qui me fait tout penser à vous!
    Translated from the French:
    “A blind man, in passing, reminds you
    What glory on my saint's day
    Did I have the gift more soft.
    How would my joy be extreme,
    If the blind man were the same,
    That makes me think more of you!”
  12. (French) Saint-Simon, Mémoires, Chéruel and Regnier, editors, Volume 8, page 448: In 1711, after hearing La Rivière at the funeral of the Monseigneur, Saint-Simon felt that the Bishop had made "une très-méchante oraison funèbre [ a very nasty funeral sermon ]."
  13. Although the funeral sermon had great quality, the Duke of Orleans was an atheist who favored Jansenism and opposed the authority of the Pope.
  14. It seems that, upon hearing the news of the Duke’s death, La Rivière, before he was chosen to give the funeral sermon, said : “Je plains celui qui sera chargé de son oraison funèbre [ I have compassion for the person who will be in charge of his funeral oration ].” See (French) Bodin, Recherches historiques sur l' Anjou, page 437.
  15. 1 2 3 (French) d'Alembert, "Eloge de Poncet de la Rivière", page 110.
  16. 1 2 (French) Saint-Simon, "Mémoires", Chéruel and Regnier, editors, Volume 19, page 213: Saint-Simon did not mention "Je crains; mais j'espere" in his Mémoires; he was more concerned with the quality of the sermon itself. He complained that it did "ne répondit pas à la grandeur du sujet [ not respond to the grandeur of the subject ]".
  17. At that time the Bishop was not allowed to have doubts. It was still widely believed that the royalty and nobility had a right to salvation regardless of the weight of their sins. Saint-Simon reported that the wife of the Marshal de la Meilleraye, learning of the death of a nobleman of the court from dissipation, felt that some feared for his salvation, and then added, “Je vous assure qu'à des gens de cette qualité-là, Dieu regarde bien à deux fois pour les damner [ For my part, I am persuaded that God will think twice about damning a man of such high birth as that! ].” The English translation of her original quotation is on page 135 of Baylis St. John's version, The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV. and the Regency., Sixth Edition., Volume II. (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1900).
  18. (French) Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale, column 739
  19. [[:fr:fr:Écouflant#Éventard|Éventard]], southeast of Écouflant, was the traditional residence of the Bishops of Angers. Built in 1280 by Nicolas Gellant, the 53rd Bishop of Angers, it was "par chacun d'eux embelli, mais surtout augmenté [ embellished by each, but especially increased ]" by the successive Bishops of Angers, including La Rivière, until the French Revolution, when the civilian buyers razed the whole estate to the ground. See (French) L[ouis]. de Farcy and Father P[aul-Marie]. Pinier, Le Palais Épiscopal d'Angers: Historie et Description (Angers: Germain and Grassin, 1903) for more information.
  20. (French) "PONCHET DE LA RIVIERE Michel" [archived], at the website, Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques (CTHS) [ Committee of Historical and Scientific Works (CTHS) ], retrieved 18 December 2013.
  21. This lectionary is quite possibly the largest volume that ever came from the press of Joseph Gentil. It is in the format of a grand folio. The title, printed in red and black, is decorated with the coat-of-arms of the Monseigneur de la Rivière. The body of the book, in the beautiful old-style Elzévier typeface, is done with chapter headings, lettrines (initials expanded to begin each chapter or paragraph) and culs-de-lampe (ornaments at the end of each chapter), taking 594 pages to cover the feast days and 328 more pages to cover the liturgy of the saints. The production of a book of this size and importance proves that the presses of Joseph Gentil possessed at that time considerable equipment.
  22. (French) Bodin, op. cit., page 436 and Jean, op. cit., page 427. This was the Bishop’s response to the Jansenist thesis from Father Julien-René Benjamin de Gennes (1687-1748), the professor of theology at the Chapel of Notre-Dame des Ardilliers in Saumur. From Brittany, de Gennes was ordained in 1717 as a priest of the Oratory of Jesus. He was a Jansenist but his brothers, including the Jesuit Henri-Anne-Daniel, were not.


Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Michel le Peletier
79th Bishop of Angers
Succeeded by
Jean de Vaugirault
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